Last week, we explored just how important it is to be guided by evidence. When evidence guides our thinking, we can draw better conclusions that stand strong amidst the ebbs and flows of the current moment. Following the evidence means ascribing oneself to a particular intellectual humility that is willing to hold fact above fiction and evidence above ego. Following the evidence makes discourse richer, exploration more enjoyable, and arguments more concrete. History, and specifically thinking historically, is grounded on the importance of evidence. This is why Thinking Nation’s historical thinking curriculum places such an emphasis on teaching students how to engage with the documents of the past. This way, they too can follow the evidence.
Unlike other academic disciplines, history does not demand that findings fit within a particular theory or ideology. Rather, historians seek to present the most accurate picture of the past. This effort must be rooted in facts and evidence. Sure, as all human beings, historians have biases. Historians make arguments, and depending on their own opinions of the past and present, facts can be used differently to make particular claims. Still, the study of the past is nothing without evidence.
If you’ve ever spent any time in the notes section of a historical book, you know just how dependent historians are on facts and evidence. I’ve seen many times where the notes section of a book is over 1/3 of the entire book’s page length! This tells us more about the importance of evidence than we might initially perceive.
When historians include such a rich database of evidence, they are demonstrating that their arguments are not merely opinions. Rather, they have a robust foundation to support their claims and they make sure that anyone who would like to review that evidence knows where it comes from. Just as they seek to contextualize the past, their citations contextualize their argument.
We know that a house built on sand won’t weather a storm. It needs to be built on rock. The notes of a historical book are that rock. Evidence is the foundation of historical study. To try to build an argument without a sturdy foundation is to arrogantly believe that what you build on your own can stand the test of other arguments and the test of time. However, building arguments on the foundation of evidence is to humbly acknowledge that an argument is only as good as its foundation. When evidence is the foundation, we can be more open to new ideas, arguments, and conclusions. Learning is moved forward. Knowledge avoids the stagnation brought on by arrogance. The past is presented accurately and sets the tone for us to accurately seek out the best way to live our present.
Historical thinking is integral to the discipline of history, but the skills it entails transcend the discipline. When our students learn how to root themselves in the evidence, they can be the change makers we so often yearn for them to be.